Long before sweets came along, there was tooth decay in the Stone Age

tooth-decay-stone-ageThe problem of tooth decay had been believed to be a modern phenomenon, but scientists have discovered evidence of tooth decay in the Stone Age, caused by the prevailing diet long before humans began producing sugary snacks.

Researchers from the Natural History Museum studied the skeletal remains of 52 adults interred in the Grotte des Pigeons – the Cave of the Pigeons – at Taforalt in eastern Morocco between 13,700 and 15,000 years ago. All but three people featured tooth decay, with cavities or other lesions in over half of the teeth found. In some of these folk, there were abscesses. Tooth decay would have been commonplace.

These people were sedentary, with many burials and a “rubbish tip” of discarded plant matter. Snails were a popular snack, as were pine nuts, pistachios and exceptionally sweet acorns. There were also grindstones that were possibly used in food preparation. It’s likely the acorns were boiled or ground into flour. Nuts were cooked, which made them sweet and sticky. Being sticky, the food would have entered gaps in teeth, giving us tooth decay in the Stone Age. Grindstones would have produced abrasive particles that wore teeth. Isabelle de Groote, who co-authored the report into the team’s findings, divulged, “This is the first time we’ve seen such bad oral health in a pre-agricultural population.” It does appear that toothpicks were used, but clearly they were of little help.

There was decay in more than half the teeth found, a level similar to the society of today. Previously, tooth decay in the Stone Age was unheard of and the earliest evidence of cavities was in early agricultural populations from the Holocene period, which covers the time from 11,700 years ago to the present, and is so also known as the Age of Man. The oldest known human settlement is Jericho, which was founded around 9000BCE, while the oldest known granary dates to 9500BCE. De Groote’s study, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stated that there was tooth decay in the Stone Age, preceding agriculture by thousands of years.

In the absence of dental treatment, people would have been left in agony. Dr Louise Humphrey, a paleoanthropologist for the Museum, explained that a tooth nerve eventually dies, but until then, pain is very severe, and downright excruciating if there’s an abscess that puts pressure on the jaw. Abscesses would have caused bone to perforate so that pus could drain away, which was observed in many of the jaw remains. Beyond tooth decay in the Stone Age, people would also have had extremely foul breath.

In over 90 percent of cases, one or both upper central incisors had been extracted. Because these teeth don’t usually get bad decay, extraction was likely for ritual purposes, possibly coming-of-age. Evidently, people knew how to remove teeth, but there’s no evidence of their removing unhealthy ones.

Humphrey deplored the Moroccan gnashers: “They have really horrible teeth.” By their late 30s and 40s, people “had really very little left to eat with.” Tooth decay in the Stone Age could be extreme, with one very young adult having numerous cavities and an abscess, “almost like a textbook for dental pathology.” These were the worst teeth Humphrey had seen other than in people who resided in London 200 years ago and would have had sugar in their diet.

Toothy decay in the Stone Age was uncommon. Outside of Taforalt, ancient gatherer-hunters (hey, they did more gathering than hunting) had cavities in 14 percent of their teeth at most. Dental health did, however, worsen when people established agricultural communities and began to consume much more carbohydrates. Tooth decay became even more widespread when sugar farming boomed in the 1600s. The earliest sign of dentistry was around 6,500 years ago when beeswax was employed to fill cavities.

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

Leave a Comment: